Skip to main content
Medicine LibreTexts

1.14.1: Health Literacy

  • Page ID

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    Chapter one of this book provided a brief introduction to health literacy, this chapter expands on the importance of critically consuming health information throughout your life and as you age. The CDC defines personal health literacy as the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

    Finding reliable health information

    Millions of consumers get health information from magazines, TV or the Internet. Some of the information is reliable and up to date; some is not. How can you tell the good from the bad to make sure you are making your own health decisions based on the best information?

    First, recognize that content on the Internet is unregulated; anyone can publish anything on the Internet. There is sound medical information on the Internet along with dangerous information. You need to be able to tell the difference.

    Ask yourself the following:

    • Why did the person create the page?
    • What’s in it for them?
    • Are they trying to sell me something?

    The following tips can help you to find current, unbiased information based on research[1].

    • Consider the source–Use recognized authorities
      • Know who is responsible for the content.
      • Look for an “about us” page. Check to see who runs the site: is it a branch of the Federal Government, a non-profit institution, a professional organization, a health system, a commercial organization or an individual.
      • There is a big difference between a site that says, “I developed this site after my heart attack” and one that says, “This page on heart attack was developed by health professionals at the American Heart Association.”
      • Web sites should have a way to contact the organization or webmaster. If the site provides no contact information, or if you can’t easily find out who runs the site, use caution.
    • Focus on quality–All Web sites are not created equal
      • Does the site have an editorial board? Is the information reviewed before it is posted?
      • This information is often on the “about us” page, or it may be under the organization’s mission statement, or part of the annual report.
      • See if the board members are experts in the subject of the site. For example, a site on osteoporosis whose medical advisory board is composed of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative.
      • Look for a description of the process of selecting or approving information on the site. It is usually in the “about us” section and may be called “editorial policy” or “selection policy” or “review policy.”
      • Sometimes the site will have information “about our writers” or “about our authors” instead of an editorial policy. Review this section to find out who has written the information.
    • Be a cyber skeptic–Quackery abounds on the Web
      • Does the site make health claims that seem too good to be true? Does the information use deliberately obscure, “scientific” sounding language? Does it promise quick, dramatic, miraculous results? Is this the only site making these claims?
      • Beware of claims that one remedy will cure a variety of illnesses, that it is a “breakthrough,” or that it relies on a “secret ingredient.”
      • Use caution if the site uses a sensational writing style (lots of exclamation points, for example.)
      • A health Website for consumers should use simple language, not technical jargon.
      • Get a second opinion! Check more than one site.
    • Look for the evidence–Rely on medical research, not opinion
      • Does the site identify the author? Does it rely on testimonials?
      • Look for the author of the information, either an individual or an organization. Good examples are “Written by Jane Smith, R.N.,” or “Copyright 2013, American Cancer Society.”
      • If there are case histories or testimonials on the Web site, look for contact information such as an email address or telephone number. If the testimonials are anonymous or hard to track down (“Jane from California”), use caution.
    • Check for currency–Look for the latest information
      • Is the information current?
      • Look for dates on documents. A document on coping with the loss of a loved one doesn’t need to be current, but a document on the latest treatment of AIDS needs to be current.
      • Click on a few links on the site. If there are a lot of broken links, the site may not be kept up-to-date.
    • Beware of bias–What is the purpose? Who is providing the funding?
      • Who pays for the site?
      • Check to see if the site is supported by public funds, donations or by commercial advertising.
    • Advertisements should be labeled. They should say “Advertisement” or “From our Sponsor.”
      • Look at a page on the site, and see if it is clear when content is coming from a non-commercial source and when an advertiser provides it. For example, if a page about treatment of depression recommends one drug by name, see if you can tell if the company that manufactures the drug provides that information. If it does, you should consult other sources to see what they say about the same drug.
    • Protect your privacy–Health information should be confidential
      • Does the site have a privacy policy and tell you what information they collect?
      • There should be a link saying “Privacy” or “Privacy Policy.” Read the privacy policy to see if your privacy is really being protected. For example, if the site says “We share information with companies that can provide you with useful products,” then your information isn’t private.
      • If there is a registration form, notice what types of questions you must answer before you can view content. If you must provide personal information (such as name, address, date of birth, gender, mother’s maiden name, credit card number) you should refer to their privacy policy to see what they can do with your information.
    • Consult with your health professional–Patient/provider partnerships lead to the best medical decisions.

    Health Fraud

    When you see statements like “miracle cure,” “revolutionary scientific breakthrough,” or “alternative to drugs or surgery,” what you should be thinking is, “bogus product,” “Danger,” or “Health fraud alert!”

    Health fraud scams have been around for hundreds of years[2]. The snake oil salesmen of old have morphed into the deceptive, high-tech marketers of today. They prey on people’s desires for easy solutions to difficult health problems, from losing weight to curing serious diseases like cancer. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a health product is fraudulent if it is deceptively promoted as being effective against a disease or health condition but has not been scientifically proven safe and effective for that purpose. Health fraud scams can do more than waste your money, they can cause serious injury or even death.

    Scammers promote their products through newspapers, magazines, TV infomercials and cyberspace. You can find health fraud scams in retail stores and on countless websites, in popup ads and spam, and on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. It is important to understand the signs of fraudulent health product.

    The FDA provides the following list of 6 Tip-offs to Rip-offs:

    1. One product does it all. Be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of diseases. The agency continues to send warning letters and take enforcement action as appropriate against companies marketing fake cure-all products. These miracle cures don’t exist – they’re bogus – and the only thing these companies are selling is false hope.
    2. Personal “success” testimonials. Success stories, such as, “It cured my diabetes” or “It immediately stopped my COVID-19 infection,” are easy to make up and are not a substitute for scientific evidence. Reviews found on popular online marketplaces and social media can be fake.
    3. Quick fixes. Few diseases or conditions can be treated quickly, even with legitimate products. Beware of language such as, “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days,” “protects from viral infections,” or “eliminates skin cancer in days.”
    4. “All natural” cure or treatment. Don’t be fooled by descriptions like “all-natural cure.” Such phrases are often used in health fraud as an attention-grabber to suggest that a product is safer than conventional treatments. These terms don’t necessarily equate to safety. Some plants found in nature (such as poisonous mushrooms) can be harmful or even kill when consumed. Moreover, the FDA has found numerous products promoted as “all-natural” cures or treatments that contain hidden and dangerously high doses of prescription drug ingredients or other active pharmaceutical ingredients.
    5. “Miracle cure.” Alarms should go off when you see this claim or others like it such as, “new discovery,” “guaranteed results,” or “secret ingredient.” If a real cure for a serious disease were FDA-approved, it would be widely reported through the media and prescribed by licensed health professionals—not plastered on advertisements in social media and messaging apps, or buried in websites, print ads, and TV infomercials.
    6. Conspiracy theories. Claims like “This is the cure our government or Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know about” are used to distract consumers from the obvious, common-sense questions about the so-called miracle cure.

    This page titled 1.14.1: Health Literacy is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sally Baldwin.

    • Was this article helpful?